Summary of Bus Safety Projects

Submission to the

Queensland School Transport Safety Task Force


Michael Paine, Automotive Consultant - Safety and Environment


Dr Michael Henderson, Traffic Injury Consultant

May 2001


NSW School Bus Task Force 1991
Door Entrapment
School Bus Seat Belts
Flashing Warning Lights
Australian Bus Crashes
Crossing Control Arm


Over the past decade we have worked jointly and separately on several projects related to the safe transport of school children. Neither of us will be able to make a presentation in person to the Queensland Task Force so we have prepared the following report on our work.

School Bus Task Force - 1990/1, NSW RTA

The School Bus Task Force was formed in response to child pedestrians being struck by cars in the vicinity of school buses. As a consultant Michael Paine was a member of the Task Force which was headed by Bruce Dowdell. A review of these accidents revealed that they were occurring in a variety of speed zones and that serious collisions involving opposing traffic were just as likely as those involving overtaking traffic. The key outcomes were:

  • Emphasising that carers should not wait on the other side of the road for children
  • The "wait, watch, walk" campaign to encourage children to wait until the bus had moved away before trying to cross the road
  • Discouraging children from crossing in front of the bus
  • Fitting high-mounted wig-wag warning lights to the front and rear of the bus
  • In addition the US practice of requiring traffic to stop while the children crossed the road next to the stationary bus was considered but was found to be inadvisable for New South Wales. Problems were:
  • US reports suggested a 20% non-compliance rate by motorists - in other words, on average, at least one motorist failed to stop during each bus journey.
  • Children were given the misleading message that it is safe to cross the road near a large vehicle, even though it prevents them being seen by motorists.
  • There have been reports, in the US, of some dangerous overtaking where motorists are desperate to pass the bus before it stops.
  • Even if the measure could be made to work in Australia, the implementation period would be especially dangerous.
  • Mr Paine recently stayed in Melbourne for a few days and caught trams around the city. This experience reinforced his concerns about expecting other traffic to stop for people alighting from a vehicle.

    Door Entrapment - 1992, NSW DoT and RTA

    Dr Henderson did consulting work for DOT and Mr Paine did work for the RTA. This project arose from fatalities where school children were caught in bus doors. It involved a review of accident records and other sources to try and identify the scale of the problem and a review of technology to reduce the risk of entrapment. Key outcomes were:

  • The problem was under-reported - particularly those involving near misses.
  • Existing bus door sensors to detect whether doors were fully closed were not suitable for, and were not intended to, preventing entrapment.
  • No complete bus door safety systems were available at the time of the study but all the necessary components were available.
  • A two stage plan was implemented in NSW for all buses carrying school children (as a condition of the school transport subsidy scheme). Initially rear doors with flexible rubber edges were permitted to be used. Later only systems that would detect a trapped limb and open the door or prevent the bus from moving were permitted. Non-complying buses carrying school children could not use the rear door.
  • It was found that entrapment was occurring with front doors as well as rear doors. Therefore safety systems were also needed on front doors.
  • A Technical Specification was prepared for the RTA setting out the requirements of systems to reduce the risk of entrapment.
  • In 2000 we reviewed door safety for the ACTION bus fleet in the ACT based on our work in NSW and recommended upgrading the bus fleet to meet the NSW Technical Specification.

    School Bus Seat Belts - 1994/95 NSW DoT

    This project arose mainly from parent concerns about the safety of children travelling in buses. We reviewed Australian and overseas regulations, accident records and bus construction techniques. Key outcomes were:

  • Most of the NSW bus fleet is used for the task of transporting school children - there are rarely buses devoted fully to transporting school children. This means that, unlike the USA, special regulations for dedicated school buses are not appropriate and that any measures need to take into consideration normal route service operation of the buses.
  • School buses are an extremely safe method of transporting school children. Unfortunately, the rare accidents (which usually only involve minor injuries) come to the attention of the media and receive high publicity with consequent political attention.
  • Children are much safer travelling on a bus than walking or riding to school. Any measures which reduce the number of children travelling by bus (such as abolishing the 3 for 2 rule) could be counter-productive
  • Lap only seat belts are not suitable for use with conventional route service bus seats because the occupant is likely to swing forward and down onto the hard seat back in front. In any case, substantial upgrading of seat and seat anchorage strength would be needed.
  • Existing route-service buses are not suitable for retro-fitting 3-point seat belts without considerable, and expensive, structural changes.
  • The sequence of safety upgrades, in order of priority, should be: pad the seat tops, pad stanchions and strengthen seats and seat anchorages (Queensland's initiatives with padding seat tops and stanchions are acknowledged)
  • Retro-fitting of seat belts should not be pursued as a mandatory safety measure for large buses but if they are fitted then they should be 3-point seat belts. Also operational issues such as the 3 for 2 rule would need to be addressed.
  • A copy of the Executive Summary is at:

    Around 1996 the National Road Transport Commission issued "Guidelines for the Voluntary Modification of Existing Buses and Coaches to Improve Occupant Protection". In effect, this followed the sequence described above. It does not appear to have been widely adopted in the bus industry.  Update 2006: National Transport Commission: Draft National Code of Practice and Engineering Certification Form for Retrofitting Passenger Restraints to Buses - prepared by Michael Paine, Michael Griffiths and Bill Bailey. 

    In 1999 Injuries Australia issued a report "Seat Belts and Buses: A Commentary" by Julia Irwin and Ian Faulks. They reviewed the issue and expressed the view that previous work gave too much attention to reasons why seat belts could not be fitted to buses rather than the benefits arising from use of seat belts.

    Flashing Warning Lights on School Buses - 1995, NSW DoT

    This project arose partly because the government had been approached by several inventors seeking to have a variety of warning systems fitted to school buses. Dr Alec Fisher, from UNSW, and Mr Paine looked at these systems and others, including bright halogen lights that were being trialled in Tasmania. Key outcomes were:

  • A signal range of 250m was needed in order for motorists travelling at 100km/h to detect and react to the signal and slow down to 40km/h by the time they reach the bus.
  • In bright daylight only the bright halogen lights had adequate signal range. Conventional lights based on turn signal lamps were totally inadequate in these circumstances.
  • If the halogen lamps are high mounted and the beam is aimed horizontally then approaching motorists will see the lights from a long distance but gradually moved into a lower intensity portion of the beam as they get closer to the vehicle. This avoids the motorists being blinded by glare at dusk or at night.
  • Pictogram style supplementary illuminated signs are likely to be counter-productive because they only become obvious when the motorist is too close to take avoidance action and they might then distract the motorist. An exception is a flashing 40 sign made from red LEDs with letters at least 400mm high. Although they would not be legible at 250m (letters 700mm high are needed at this distance) they would reinforce the purpose of the flashing lights. Unfortunately NSW has not trialled this suggestion.
  • A paper on this research was written for the 15th International Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles (ESV), held in Melbourne. See

    Australian Bus Safety Standards & Bus Accidents - 1995, National Road Transport Commission.

    Mr Paine reviewed official and newspaper reports of bus accidents throughout Australia from 1970 to 1993. The potential effectiveness of various bus-related countermeasures were evaluated based on the accident statistics. Bus regulations and requirements in each state and territory were also reviewed and compared with national requirements (Australian Design Rules). Key outcomes were:

  • Brake failures were involved in 20% of the fatalities and were usually associated with long descents.
  • Emergency exits were a factor in most of the serious crashes.
  • Cases involving fire were rare but potentially very dangerous because the front door was frequently unusable after the crash .
  • Crashes of school excursion buses, many in Queensland, were prominent in the accident analysis.
  • This work contributed to a national forum on bus construction standards by the NRTC (contact Ross McArthur - now with Vicroads). Unfortunately the forum concentrated on "mandatory" requirements and many worthwhile initiatives were discarded due, we understand, to uncertainties in cost-benefit analysis. The subsequent Australian Vehicle Standards require bright flashing lights on school buses but the status of implementation of this requirement is unclear.

    A copy of extracts of the report are at

    The School Bus Crossing Control Arm: An Evaluation - 1996 for NSW DoT.

    This report was co-authored with Dr Austin Adams (UNSW) and was prepared in consultation with a steering committee. The project arose from suggestions by the NSW Staysafe Committee, and others, that a trial of a crossing control arm, mounted on the front of a school bus should be conducted. The intention was to discourage children from crossing the road in front of the bus. Video cameras were mounted on a government bus to record children outside the bus at the front and rear. Analysis of the video revealed no cases of children crossing in front of the bus. Next a trial was conducted on a closed road (using for bicycle safety training). A government bus was fitted with a prototype crossing control arm that swung out at the front of the bus. It brought school children on excursion to the closed road. The bus was parked so that the children had to cross the road to reach the bicycle safety centre and the shortest way was by the front of the bus. Most groups were told by the teacher to wait at the front of the bus. The arm was then retracted. Safety problems observed were:

  • Some children stepped into the path of the bus when the arm retracted. Normally the arm would be retracted when the bus was about to move off so this is a dangerous reaction.
  • Some children stared at the arm as they walked in front of the bus and therefore did not look for traffic on the road.
  • Theoretical analysis showed that the extra 2 metres sight distance provided by the arm, if it worked as intended, would be unlikely to change the outcome - a car travelling at an initial speed of 40km/h would still collide with the child at a speed that was sufficient to cause serious injury or worse.

    It was concluded that the control arm would introduce safety problems and that it was counter-productive to the "wait, watch, walk" message. For this reason a proposed on-road trial of the device was abandoned. This attracted criticism from proponents of the crossing control arm but the Steering Committee agreed there were unacceptable safety concerns about the proposed trial.


    We recommend that the Task Force considers the following issues as part of its review:

  • Be cautious about applying US construction requirements and operating practices to buses used for school transport in Australia - the US has the benefit of a bus fleet used exclusively for school transport.
  • Look at the overall effects of changing one mode of transport. For example, if less children are able to be transported by bus then forcing some to walk or ride a bike might decrease overall safety.
  • It is time to review the success, or otherwise, of the national guidelines for voluntary upgrading of buses. It may be necessary to provide incentives for bus operators to upgrade buses.
  • It is time to review the operational experience with seat belts on new coaches (required under Australian Design Rule 68). This experience should be taken into account in any proposals for mandatory fitting of seat belts to buses used for school transport.
  • There should be a review the standards of buses/coaches used on school excursions. There might be a case for requiring coaches with 3 point seat belts, particularly on longer trips on rural roads.
  • Consider the success of flashing warning light systems on school buses, and associated programs, in various Australian states. Also review the status of implementation of Australian Vehicle Standards that, in effect, require bright halogen flashing lights on new school buses.
  • Vehicle countermeasures alone are not sufficient for preventing injuries. It is important that a systems approach be taken to school transport safety problems. Education of children, motorists and bus drivers is important, as is consideration of the road environment.
  • Thank you for the opportunity to provide advice to the Task Force. We understand that this is the first major review of the school transport issue since a number of initiatives were implemented during the 1990s. It will therefore be of interest to the Federal Government and other State Governments and will give some direction to national initiatives.

    Michael Paine and Michael Henderson

    28 May 2001

    Contact Details

    Michael Paine